As Americans, we encounter diversity daily. While we continue to see some signs of progress, the 2021 LGBTQ Youth Mental Health Study by the Trevor Project noted that at least once in their lifetime, 75% of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. No matter how much progress we make, discrimination in any form hurts and can have a grave impact on one’s mental health.
As the Director of Health Care International’s (HCAI) Youth & Family program, I have the good fortune of being able to speak to teachers, parents, school administrators and kids about how the power of kindness and acceptance can save lives.
We will always encounter diversity, in some form throughout our lives, and inclusivity is not guaranteed. But the fact is that in the LGBTQ community, if a person has just one individual to support and include them, it can make a lifesaving difference.
According to the Trevor Project study, lower suicide rates were reported for LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their gender identity and sexual orientation. The statistics are even more significant in the transgender and non-binary community where youth suicide rates were cut in half when pronouns were respected by the people they lived with compared to individuals whose pronouns were not respected by anyone with whom they lived.
I know this to be true because I am often that one person for many of these kids. Through my work with HCAI, I am often called upon when a child is in a dire situation. There have been many instances when I am meeting with a child in a psychiatric hospital after an attempted suicide. Most times, these kids are there because of the anxiety and depression they experience due to feeling a lack of love or acceptance.
The foundation of HCAI’s Youth & Family Program is empathy, kindness and acceptance. Most of all, these kids and families need to know they aren’t being judged and that they are in a safe environment to speak and feel freely. When they come to us or when we are called in to help, the first thing we do is listen.
It’s human nature to tell someone “Don’t worry, everything is going to be okay.” But, in most cases, the kids that I encounter do not feel okay. In fact, they are very close to committing self-harm or even worse, committing suicide. The key is to empathize and listen and connect them with the right assistance. The first thing we say is “We are sorry you are suffering; how can we help?”
During one of our recent school trainings, a transgender student asked to meet with me prior to the workshop. He shocked me when he said, “You helped me when I was in the hospital two years ago.” It was a total surprise to see a transformed teenager who was previously nonverbal and refused to communicate with me at that time.
I realized I had previously worked with him while he was at a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt – nearly two years prior. At the time, he had no support system and was nonverbal simply because he felt like his voice was not heard. I knew at that moment that we needed to help him. We started by assuring him that he could be his authentic self and that we believed him.
HCAI provided him with a binder – a compression undergarment to flatten the chest – and today he is continuing his journey to transition. It only takes one person or organization’s unconditional support to significantly reduce the suicide risk.
Sometimes the only support that kids will experience is outside their home – at school and with friends. Therefore, it is important for schools to set the tone of acceptance. When we meet with schools, we ask administrators and teachers, “Do your students walk into your building and see themselves represented every day?” Kids cannot be what they do not see. If they see themselves in the curriculum, in the library, in the Pride flag that is flown year-round, their path to acceptance and reduced mental health crises increases.
In fact, the Trevor Project study noted that LGBTQ youth had lower rates of attempting suicide when they found their school to be LGBTQ-affirming.
How can we expect a student to give 100% when they can’t be 100% of who they are? Imagine students that must worry about getting beaten up, teased or even which bathroom they need to use simply if they try to live their truth. If gender identity and sexual orientation is all they can think about because they aren’t being accepted and living freely, it is not only preventing them from moving forward but also from being their best selves both physically and mentally.
The indisputable reality is that the LGBTQ community – and transgender and non-binary individuals even more so – are facing mental health concerns at an alarming rate. The benefits of something as simple as a sense of belonging is lifesaving. In HCAI’s Youth and Family Program workshops and trainings, we ask parents, caregivers and educators to lead with empathy, kindness and acceptance. Diversity happens. Inclusion is a choice that can save a life.
It is critically important for LGBTQ youth to have access to resources, services and support that enables them to feel accepted and included. Even more, the support of one family member, friend, mentor, coach, or teacher could be the relationship that saves a life. In their 2019 Youth Mental Health Study, The Trevor Project found that LGBTQ youth who reported having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.
HCAI can be a resource to connect LGBTQ youth with the people and services they may need. If you know someone who is struggling with their mental health, be the person who makes a difference and act today.
As director of HCAI’s Youth and Families program, Tony Ferraiolo helps to provide a safe, supportive place for LGBTQ youth and their families. Tony joined the HCAI family in 2021. The program aims to build bridges within communities so every child can be their authentic self and walk a path of happiness filled with love and kindness. After years of struggling with his own gender identity, Tony transitioned in 2005. Realizing that he went through this difficult time not knowing any other transgender person, he made it his life purpose to support LGBTQ youth and their families. Tony is also a certified life coach, published author, and holds a teaching certification in mindfulness. He is co-founder of the Jim Collins Foundation, a nonprofit providing financial assistance for gender-confirming surgeries. Tony was the subject of the award-winning documentary A Self-Made Man. To learn more about Health Care Advocates International visit https://www.hcaillc.com/.
Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. If you need to talk to someone now, call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860. It’s staffed by trans people, for trans people. The Trevor Project provides a safe, judgement-free place to talk for LGBTQ youth at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.